I Love New York - by John Sealander

Sorry I've been away so long. You probably don't even recognize me anymore. I've gained a few pounds. I go to bed earlier. I certainly can't wear the outrageously theatrical, samurai inspired clothing that continued to bring me to the Soho showroom of Nicola Pelly and Harry Parnass in the early 1980's. Those were the days when Don Johnson sported a wardrobe from my favorite Parachute store on "Miami Vice." You could ride an elevator to the top of the World Trade Center. Taxi drivers spoke English. And the battleship department stores that lined Fifth Avenue weren't carbon copy clones of their namesakes in shopping malls all over the country.
Hey, a lot changes in twenty years. Don't get me wrong. You look fabulous. The streets are clean. There is no graffiti anywhere. Not even on the subways. Rudy Giuliani has been good for you. Maybe it's just that I'm older now, but I get the definite feeling that people are friendlier than they used to be. There's a pride in living in this city that is evident almost everywhere.
It's not just the obvious things like a fireman autographing postcards for enthusiastic children at Engine and Ladder 10, directly across from the World Trade Center site. It's a man in the subway patiently explaining why the uptown train is often on the downtown track on Sundays. "We can't even figure it out ourselves," he tells us. An enthusiastic, young waiter at Resette on 45th street predicts that the Dallas Cowboys are going to have a good year this season and asks what we think about Terrell Owens. An MTA employee tells my companion that she ought to whack me for interrupting her while we were asking directions. She asks how long we have been together and says that twenty-three years isn't long enough to start completing your partner's sentences. "If my husband cut me off like that," she tells me, "I'd definitely whack him." Then she proceeds to tell us exactly how to find the train we are looking for.
Not everyone is this open and approachable however. There are vast Caribou herds of young people walking up and down Broadway with iPods in their pockets and ear buds in their ears, all seemingly oblivious to the world around them. It's impossible to tell where these people came from or where they are going. They certainly aren't shopping or buying anything. Broadway and 42nd Street must be the busiest intersection in the city. There are people everywhere in Times Square, but oddly none of them seem to have a clue why they are there. Occasionally, they take pictures of each other with their cell phones, but for the most part, they just walk up and down the street listening to their iPods.
I wonder if Faith Popcorn actually anticipated these millions of people walking publicly in their private little worlds when she coined the word "Cocooning" in the early 1990's? Julliard students still serenade morning commuters with Mozart concertos in the cavernous halls of Grand Central Station, but it's hard to tell if anyone is listening. Who knows? Maybe everybody is listening to OutKast instead. It would certainly appear that way the afternoon we encountered a large group of enthusiastic fans surrounding André 3000 as he sat in an open car wearing a pith helmet as if he was on safari. "André" the crowd shouted over and over. We thought Andre Agassi must be somewhere nearby until we got close enough to see it was an Atlanta hip hop artist wearing a pith helmet instead.
In sharp contrast, the very next day we almost collided with Donald Trump as he walked alone down Fifth Avenue toward Tiffany's. There were no crowds at all. Nobody asked for The Donald's autograph or made a scene. You could have sworn he was just another regular guy wearing a blue suit with his bodyguard in tow if it wasn't for the hair. The hair alone should have gotten Donald a much better crowd than André 3000. But hey, who said life is fair. We thought that Donald was going into Tiffany's to buy something for his pretty new wife, but he kept walking and went straight into the Trump Tower next door instead. The doors of his building were exactly the same color as his hair.
New York is full of surprises like this. Just when we thought that impossibly long lines, tacky overpriced souvenirs and relentless vendors trying to sell audio tours had squeezed every drop of romance out of the Empire State Building, we saw something that restored our faith in the power of this building. When we finally arrived at the 102 floor, after a circuitous trip through the building's hallways that seemed to take hours, a young German man directly ahead of us took a ring out of his pocket and asked his date to marry him. The stylishly dressed young woman seemed surprised that her man was proposing to her in a tourist trap instead of a few blocks uptown at an elegant table at Aquavit. She didn't say "yes," but we didn't hear her say "no" either. It might not have been "A Night to Remember." It probably wasn't even "Sleepless in Seattle" but apparently the building does still has it's charms.
Another building that definitely has its charms is Grand Central Station. When Cornelius Vanderbilt built this 49-acre Beaux Arts masterpiece in 1913, I wonder if he had any idea what kind of world his monumental terminal would reside in today. Vanderbilt associate John W. Campbell's luxurious private office and salon high atop the terminal has now become an equally luxurious cocktail lounge. The Campbell Apartment is widely cited as being one of "the best bars in America." Have a Martini here late on a Sunday evening and you'll have the entire place to yourself. Sip your drink slowly as you marvel at hand painted ceilings that would feel right at home in Buckingham Palace or the Vatican and you begin to understand that life in New York in the 1920's was much grander than it is today.
The soaring triumphs of New York City that take your breath away are, with a few notable exceptions, from an earlier era when the rich were rich and the poor were poor. Times have changed. Today's version of Cornelius Vanderbilt hosts his own popular reality show where he offers the cell phone generation we see walking endlessly up and down Broadway a temporary taste of the good life as his apprentice. You don't need to be a Vanderbilt to enjoy the good life these days. Hedonistic pleasures and a chance at thirty minutes of fame are everywhere you look.
I'm not trying to say that life isn't still a bitch. I'm sure it is. Owning a car in Manhattan has certainly got to be a bitch. There are fewer parking places in Manhattan than there are in Waco, Texas. I can't help wondering where people buy their groceries or fill their tanks with gas. You see plenty of cars driving around, but you just don't see gas stations in Manhattan.   Owning a dog has got to be a problem too. There are lots of people walking dogs, but you don't find many pet stores. We ask a guy walking a nice looking Black Lab on Park Avenue where he buys dog food and he tells us "Yonkers."   People do still buy furniture it seems.  We see a girl on the subway holding a large ottoman in her lap. The chair looked bigger than she was and I still can't figure out how she got through the door of the train with it. Later we see a young couple trying to carry a new sofa home down Ninth Avenue as we eat dinner. The woman looks tired and irritated and asks her partner to stop and rest. We wonder if they will still be together when they arrive at their final destination.
Probably everything will be just fine. Ninth Avenue, between 34th and 57th streets seems to be filled with interesting, resilient people, exciting new restaurants and all sorts of things to do. I love this part of town. Hell's Kitchen is probably exactly what Greenwich Village used to be years ago. You can tell the area is not expensive or overly trendy yet, but it's definitely on the way up. We find our first pet store in Hell's Kitchen and that's always a good sign.
It's also a good sign when up and coming chefs like Roberto Passon move to the neighborhood. Passon's namesake restaurant at 50th and Ninth Avenue is remarkable. I love great pasta and the Pappardelle with Braised Marinated Venison here is as good as it gets. Roberto's Venetian inspired specialties are ambitious, original and always delicious. Maybe you might think that a simple Italian meal of pasta and wine doesn't deserve to be the highlight of a twenty-year reunion with America's greatest city, but Roberto Passon certainly does it for me.
From Hell's Kitchen, it's only a short walk to almost any theater in town. Since billboards on the side of busses keep telling us that it's time to see The Phantom of the Opera all over again, it's probably an even better idea to see it for the very first time. Phantom has been playing on Broadway almost as long as I've been away from Manhattan. Andrew Lloyd Webber's adaptation of Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel about a homicidal opera ghost was a phenomenon long before resurrecting the music of pop groups like Abba or the Four Seasons became the formula for successful Broadway musicals. It was a pleasure to discover that Howard McGillin and Rebecca Pitcher had returned to the cast. As always, the best and the brightest continue to gravitate to this city. Rebecca Pitcher is remarkable as Christine. In the era of Cornelius Vanderbilt and John W. Campbell, someone with Rebecca's talent would be on stage at the Metropolitan Opera, singing the role of Papagena in The Magic Flute. Times change however. The crowds of people in Times Square with their iPods and cell phone cameras probably aren't interested in becoming a lyric coloratura at all. I'm sure they'd rather become the next American Idol instead.
The best and the brightest in broadcasting certainly still see New York as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I wonder how many local news anchors around the country applied for the co-anchor position that Meredith Vieira now shares with Matt Lauer on the Today Show? We watch a Tuesday morning broadcast of the Today Show at its outdoor summer studio location above the skating rink in Rockefeller Center and marvel a the professionalism of the entire crew. Even the guys wearing black T-shirts holding the microphone boom poles seemed a cut above their Kansas City counterparts. Of course Meredith would get the job. The other Katie Couric wannabees probably didn't have perfectly white teeth, couldn't fit effortlessly into size two clothes and got flustered when they were give script changes every thirty seconds
We observed the same kind of professionalism when we attended a taping of The Late Show with David Letterman the previous evening. All the enthusiastic, bright-eyed young assistants walking around with clipboards and walkie-talkies, keeping audience members in the correct line in front of the theater probably graduated with honors from the most prestigious broadcast production programs in the country. These people took their jobs seriously and even though the show itself had Dave's trademark casual effortlessness, you could tell that every second had been meticulously planned.
Men still wear a shirt and tie to work in the office tower canyons surrounding our hotel. I think the only slackers in this city are the tourists. The young professionals who actually work here every day probably realize that there are still thousands of people in Seattle, Minneapolis and Dallas who dream of taking their place.  I think about the differences between an East Coast and West Coast work ethic as we visit Ellis Island. Just about all of us have at least one relative who  passed through this gateway to the good life.  As the immigrants walked upstairs to the cavernous registry room in the island's main building they were scrutinized by a team of doctors who looked for illness and  physical infirmity.  In the early 1900's, America was looking for strong, healthy workers for its mines and factories. It was looking for loyal citizens who would cherish its values. Those who didn't measure up were sent back to their country of origin.
We like to think today that America has always welcomed everyone to its shores. The truth is a little different. The twelve million immigrants that passed through Ellis Island were the best and the brightest, or at least the healthiest, the world had to offer at the time. Many of these immigrants stayed in New York and established the colorful neighborhoods that give the city its unique character today.
Even with a giant hole in the ground where the World Trade Center used to stand; even with machine gun toting swat teams guarding the stock exchange on Wall Street; the optimism and "can do" attitude that Ellis Island immigrants brought with them to the city still remains. New York remains a place that inspires dreams and continues to be a place where almost anything is possible. Where else could an Indianapolis weatherman go to become one of the worlds most popular and respected comedians? Where else could a man with a bad comb over become a modern day Midas? From The Rainbow Pharmacy on First Avenue to The Rainbow Room on top of Rockefeller Center, New York continues to represent the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for millions of dreamers around the world.

I've been away for twenty years, but that's way too long. I didn't even get a chance to go to Soho or Greenwich Village on this trip. As we take a scenic cab drive through Queens on our way to LaGuardia, I make plans in my head to return to Manhattan next year. Next time, I want to make sure there's enough time to see the new Hayden Planetarium and maybe get down to Soho again. I'm sure something fabulous has replaced my beloved Parachute store.

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